MICHIGAN LIVING MAGAZINE

Up, Up and Away

Hot-air balloon rides offer a lofty way to experience Michigan's awesome majesty.

They float quietly over the countryside, suspended beneath a seven-story hot-air balloon in a basket made of wicker and rattan. Up there, balloonists hear deer sprinting through the woods before they see them. They spot fish swimming in the lakes and ponds just outside the reach of anglers.

It's an incredible experience. And those who operate hot-air balloons love to share it with anyone daring enough to take flight.

As an avid balloonist since 1982 and a fan of Michigan's natural wonders, I've been fortunate to see the beauty of our state from slightly above the treetops.

On one flight last spring, for example, we came upon a great blue heron rookery on an island in Kensington Park's Kent Lake near Milford. Dozens of these birds with six-foot wingspans were hovering around their nests made of broom-handle-size sticks. Inside, two gangly herons sat on eggs.

Later, we marveled at the sounds of 20 swans taking flight and grouping into formation just an arm's length away from our balloon. Such remarkable views are available only from a balloon.

TAKE TO THE SKY

During the fall, we frequently fly over Erwin's Orchards in South Lyon. Owner Bill Erwin once told me that I could drop in any time. He didn't imagine we would literally drop in and help ourselves to a few apples from his carefully pruned trees. For the record, my chase crew— the men and women who follow the balloon on the ground in support vehicles— are big fans of his bakery's homemade bread, fresh doughnuts and ice cream.

Once, while flying over Grand Traverse Bay, I marveled at being able to see Little Traverse Bay, Lake Michigan, Crystal Lake, as well as Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas and their cherry orchards, all at once from our panoramic perch high in the sky. What would take hours to see by car, we were able to enjoy in one big gulp from the air.

As a pilot searching for a landing spot, being around all that water and those little strips of land makes one appreciate the dry land. But it's all in a day's work for Jeff Geiger of Grand Traverse Balloons. During the summer, he flies passengers over water-rich areas on a daily basis and is well equipped for the unexpected water landing.

"In 13 years of flying balloons over the bays, I've yet to have a water landing, but we're prepared with life rafts and life vests," he said.

Downstate, Michigan Balloon Corp. offers hot-air balloon rides year-round from its launch site at Seven Lakes State Park in Holly. "Flying around out here is like an aerial nature walk, with more than 50 lakes in a 10-mile radius," said chief pilot and owner Craig Elliott. "We see a lot of deer and other wildlife. It's a wonderful adventure. All of our pilots have at least 15 years of experience."

Elliott organizes an annual balloon event at Seven Lakes State Park benefiting Children's Miracle Network. This year, flights are scheduled to launch around 7 p.m., July 23–25. Call (248) 634-9400 for more information.

Elliott also operates Michigan's only tethered helium balloon just off I-75 at the Birch Run exit. You may have seen it floating over Birch Run last summer, its first year of operation.

The 15-minute ride rises 500 feet while safely secured to terra firma by a cable. If you are unsure whether you might like a hot-air balloon adventure, the tethered ride tests your desire for riding the air. The cost is $19.50 for adults and $14.50 for 9- to 16-year-olds. Kids younger than 9 ride free with a fare-paying adult. Call (517) 624-5355.

SAILING AWAY

Ballooning requires teamwork and a few friends, reports Bob Hedges, president of the Southeast Michigan Balloon Association (SEMBA) and owner of Balloon Safaris.

"One way to get involved in ballooning is to volunteer as a crew member," he said, alluding to his possible need for extra help this summer, as business is so good. He launches from the Balloon Port at Island State Recreation Park off Kensington Road south of I-96.

According to Hedges, "With flights nearly every weekend (early evenings), you're bound to see a balloon. If you want to become a crew member, just ask."

A fixed-wing pilot of high-performance aircraft with more than 600 hours in the air, Hedges said, "Ballooning is a unique adventure every time because you don't know where you're going to land." With Michigan's excellent safety record, Hedges adds, "the most dangerous part of ballooning is driving out to the field."

Capt. Phogg Balloon Rides, a feature of Balloon Quest Inc., has been around for 28 years and operates up to eight balloons seven days per week. The company maintains its own balloon port and launch field between Fenton and Holly. CEO Eric Horton also trains pilots and sells new balloons.

READY FOR LIFTOFF

Most ballooning in Michigan happens between mid-May and late October, although some pilots offer rides year-round. All flights are on a weather- permitting basis. For safe and pleasant flights, balloonists look for surface wind speeds less than 10 knots and upper winds under 20 knots.

The cost ranges from $149 to $195 per person, and most companies offer gift certificates. Some baskets can hold up to 10 people, while others offer space just for two plus the pilot. Most balloonists offer champagne and nonalcoholic beverages after the flights, which last about one hour— depending upon wind currents, landing sites, total weight of the passengers and other factors.

The Wicker Basket Balloon Co. of Wixom, for example, offers 60- to 90-minute balloon rides and is able to accommodate up to 50 passengers with special group rates.

Owner Gordon Boring is one of the most experienced commercial pilots in Michigan and has trained dozens of pilots, including me. With more than 2,100 hours as a pilot in command, he's the expert on ballooning in southern Michigan.

To really appreciate all that Michigan has to offer, call a balloonist and schedule a flight today. If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around you. . . the view is better from above.

WHEN YOU GO

There are numerous hot-air balloon companies around the state. Check your local telephone directory for listings.

For spectacular flights around Traverse City, call Grand Traverse Balloon Co. at (616) 947-7433. The Michigan Balloon Corp., (800) 968-8368, usually charges $175 per person with group rates, but AAA members can "Show Your Card" for special discounts. Balloon Safaris charges $149 per person and can be reached at (248) 594-7915. For Balloon Quest, featuring Capt. Phogg Balloon Rides, call (800) 447-4644 or (248) 634-3094. Wicker Basket Balloon Co., (248) 624-5137, offers flights in five different balloons.

Scott Lorenz of Plymouth has accumulated more than 850 hours as a balloon pilot traveling throughout the United States, Canada, Japan, China and Europe. His Web site at www.westwindcos.com/balloon contains a list of Michigan ballooning events.





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